Off-stage stage fright: Here’s what to do about everyday performance anxiety, according to experts

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By Sarah Anderson

Medill Reports 


You might have forgotten your lines as Tree No. 3 in the school play ages ago, but your nerves are waiting in the wings for an unwelcome encore. “Performance anxiety is not limited to actually being on stage,” said psychologist Tamar Chansky, founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. “It’s more the feeling of being on stage in any situation.” This everyday stage fright can trip you up at work, in social settings, before bed and on vacation. Try these tips to stop psyching yourself out when you sense life’s spotlight on you.



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Maybe you can easily explain an idea to your office BFF but get tongue-tied around your superior. Prepare with the person’s communication style in mind for the best chance at a well-received and nerve-free interaction, Chansky said. For example, rather than delivering a long-winded speech to a busy boss, craft a concise elevator pitch. And remember that the pressure’s off. Tell yourself, “This is not a job interview. I already work here,” Chansky recommended. Instead of scrutinizing your performance, focus on the message you would like to communicate, said psychologist Julie Jaffee Nagel, author of “Managing Stage Fright.” “Perfection is the enemy of comfort on stage, whatever kind of stage you’re on,” she said. “Think about what you’re sharing with the audience rather than what you have to prove. You don’t have to prove anything.”



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Can you relate? You feel you’re being evaluated during a social interaction, such as a first date, causing you to second-guess everything you do. (Should I hug him? Would that be weird?) “When we focus inward, we get all up in our head, and that’s where the trouble begins,” said David Valentiner, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. Instead, try to direct your attention outward during the interaction. Make a mental note of the person’s eye color, observe details in the scenery or become engrossed in the activity you’re doing, he said. And remind yourself of the real stakes of the outing. “If you go on a first date and things don’t go well, it’s actually not that big of a deal,” Valentiner said. “The key is, even if you’re uncomfortable, keep going, keep trying and keep putting yourself out there.” If practice isn’t helping, he recommends speaking with a mental health professional.



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Picture this: You’ve followed all the well-known rules for a good night’s rest (even resisting that 2 p.m. coffee craving). But when the big moment arrives, you’re willing the Sandman to visit. “Thinking about sleep causes people to not sleep,” said Dr. Matthew Edlund, director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, Florida. To break this cycle, leave the bed and do something you find calming, like tidying up or talking with a friend, said Jennifer Mundt, a sleep psychologist at Northwestern Medicine. “Get your mind off trying to sleep and then the sleepiness will come,” she said. What if watching your favorite episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” would do the trick? If you’ve been able to conk out in front of the TV in the past, you have her blessing. Anxiety about screens can be a bigger threat to sleep than the light itself, Mundt said, but she still recommends maximizing your distance from the device and minimizing its brightness. And remind yourself that you can still function after one restless night. After all, sleep-deprived Meredith Grey performed brain surgery.



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Relaxing on vacation or during the holidays is supposed to relieve anxiety, right? Yes, but in a paradox similar to thinking about sleep, trying to relish those precious days can prevent you from experiencing the moment. “We want to get the most out of everything, and sometimes those very expectations can interfere with you enjoying yourself,” Chansky said. To keep leisure performance anxiety under control, acknowledge this “Am I having fun yet?” feeling and tell yourself it is a natural and temporary part of the shift from work to play. “Understanding that you need some time to transition will probably help that transition,” Chansky said. And remember that you don’t have to jam-pack your itinerary to take advantage of time off, she said. Instead, reflect on what would revitalize you, whether that’s reading a book, walking on the beach or bungee jumping. Indulge in those plans (or lack thereof) guilt-free.




Sarah Anderson is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill and a Ph.D. chemist.  Follow her on Twitter @seanderson63.